Archive — Work

Do academic disciplines engage society?

Do academic disciplines engage society?

An idea for how academia can make itself more relevant and accessible:

[I]t has been my view that universities should present their ‘shop windows’ in a more thematic way, with less of an emphasis on traditional Faculty structures (law, economics, physics, engineering, and so forth), and more on issues of general public and social concern. This will be easier if we do not construct all academic argument around the single subjects in which we were once trained.

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Bringing focus to our findings: continued user research for the API Service

Reporting findings to the API Service team

Bringing focus to our findings: continued user research for the API Service

This is the final blog post in my short series about the user research I led on for the API Service at the University of Edinburgh.

This post covers the second half of the research, where we brought focus to the detailed picture developed in the first phase, and began to prioritise the issues to help the API Service team direct their ongoing work.

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Crying over spilt milk: An empathy map example

Crying over spilt milk: An empathy map example

Example empathy map

I have recently been involved in a project with the University of Edinburgh UX Service to conduct user research for the API Service.

In one of the workshops we ran, we wanted participants to work with empathy maps to give us an insight into their experiences.

This post on the University Website Programme blog outlines how I introduced workshop participants to the concept of empathy maps, with an example around my own experience of buying milk.

Buying milk is a simple task that most of us carry out on a regular basis. But this example showed how using an empathy map can reveal a surprising amount of detail about the behaviours and feelings someone goes through when completing a task.

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Collecting things

Collecting things

Giles Turnbull argues that you should, “Collect things that future-you will find useful.”

Part of me recoils at this idea. I am naturally a bit of a hoarder. But as such, I make it part of my routine to occasionally tidy things away into the bin.

But it will undoubtedly be important to keep some of this stuff.

All this is a long-winded way of saying: be an archivist. Capture the things your people are thinking about and talking about, as well as the things they’re doing and delivering. The two are intertwined. They shape one another.

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The Dunning-Kruger effect in innovation

The Dunning-Kruger effect in innovation

The Dunning-Kruger effect describes the phenomenon whereby people with relatively little experience feel a high degree of confidence. This point is known as Mt Stupid.

Following this is the valley of despair, where the person loses their confidence, before slowly climbing the slope of enlightenment. The shape of this curve is strikingly similar to the Gartner hype cycle.

It is always tempting to think that I myself was atop Mt Stupid a couple of years ago, thereby making me on my way up the slope of enlightenment. However, I think this every time I see it.

This article makes the wise point that you can be on the slope of enlightenment for some issues, and still climbing your way to Mt Stupid on others.

However, given that the human condition makes it difficult for each of us to realise the limitations of our own knowledge, we’ll have to live with temporary outbursts of hubris. There is no reason to be self-complacent. Everybody is a wise expert in only a few things, while still climbing Mt Stupid in many, many others.

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User experience research for the University of Edinburgh’s API Service

Presenting findings of our user research for the API Service

User experience research for the University of Edinburgh’s API Service

I have been leading some user research for a project at the University of Edinburgh to develop API Service. This post on the University Website Programme blog outlines the steps we went through in the first phase of the research. This included interviewing developers, running workshops, and developing personas and journey maps.

This has been a successful and rewarding project. It has been particularly interesting for me to do some UX work that wasn’t necessarily to do with a website. There will be a couple more blog posts about it to come.

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An ode to writing with a human voice

An ode to writing with a human voice

More on the apparent decline of blogs from the Government Digital Service (GDS).

This article makes the excellent counterpoint to a recent GDS post apparently attempting to address the debate around the quality of their recent blogging efforts.

The measures of success cited include levels of ‘engagement’, aligning posts with campaigns, and instances of very senior officials publishing posts. This, to me, fundamentally misunderstands the value of blogging compared with more ‘formal’ communications. Aligning blogs more closely with PR activity doesn’t strengthen blogs— it nullifies their distinct value.

Of course, it is not just GDS who have suffered.

In the early days, blogging and social media was so vital precisely because it wasn’t traditional communications. When the communications people caught wind of the popularity of social media, they took control (which, for some reason, comms people are obsessed with). The comms crowd and the marketing mob turned social media into yet another stifled channel, designed to control the message, thereby destroying actual valuable communication.

See also:

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What makes the perfect office?

What makes the perfect office?

Lessons for architects, designers and managers. What research has shown about office design and productivity.

It turns out that the most productive spaces aren’t the ones that are tasteful, “look professional” or have been designed by a starchitect. They are spaces that empowered people to make the space their own.

… [T George] Harris scoured the academic literature for any evidence that good design helped people to get things done, or to be happier in the office. He couldn’t find it. “People suddenly put into “good design” did not seem to wake up and love it,” he wrote. What people love, instead, is the ability to control the space in which they work – even if they end up filling the space with kitsch, or dog photos, or even – shudder – garden gnomes.

Trained designers tend to have a strong idea of what good taste is. But that often flies in the face of what most people actually want.

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Relax! You’ll be more productive

Relax! You’ll be more productive

A rare beast: an article about productivity that doesn’t just contain the same old stuff you’ve heard before. This mainly focuses on why often it’s better to do less to get more productive.

But I was most intrigued by the revelation that sleep cycles actually continue when you are awake:

The difference is that during the day we move from a state of alertness progressively into physiological fatigue approximately every 90 minutes. Our bodies regularly tell us to take a break, but we often override these signals and instead stoke ourselves up with caffeine, sugar and our own emergency reserves — the stress hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol.

Working in 90-minute intervals turns out to be a prescription for maximizing productivity.

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The tools matter and the tools don’t matter

The tools matter and the tools don’t matter

It is easy to sneer at a question about what brand of pen to use, or whether you should use a pencil or a typewriter.

But in this piece, Austin Kleon argues that different tools can help you “get you to a certain way of working in which you can get your conscious, mechanical mind out of the way” to enable creativity.

…handwriting is great for coming up with ideas, for note-taking and big picture thinking…

Typing, on the other hand, is great for producing writing for other people… There’s a thing called “transcription fluency,” which boils down to: “when your fingers can’t move as fast as your thoughts, your ideas suffer.”

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Of software designers and broken combs

Of software designers and broken combs

An interesting way of thinking about skills development that I hadn’t heard of before. Conventional wisdom suggests aiming for a T shaped distribution of skills — (the horizontal bar representing shallow skills across many disciplines; the vertical bar representing deep understanding of one discipline).

The broken comb model suggests developing a moderately deep understanding across many disciplines.

With certain exceptions, organizations with many T-shaped people may have difficulty keeping all of those T-shaped people busy. If the base of my T is icon design, but there are no icons available to design, I am either stuck twiddling my thumbs, or doing something I’m much less good at.

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The big problem with change programmes

The big problem with change programmes

An intriguing connection between modern human narcissism and corporate change programmes. Did they both start in the same place?

Far from pursuing some unrealistic dream, perhaps we’d be much happier if we learned to live with our imperfections, neuroses and human frailties…

Maybe we need to accept that not all problems are there to be fixed. That our organisations are flawed. They always have been and always will be.

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Subverted design

Subverted design

As designers have gradually become more senior (or perhaps more experienced), their role in organisations has evolved. But it’s not necessarily a good thing.

Products will always be made through compromise. But in a world where Designers are focused on balancing business needs against user needs, while other stakeholders are focused exclusively on business needs, these compromises will almost always favor the business.

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AI don’t kill people, people do

AI don’t kill people, people do

Reflections on whether technological advances will ‘take our jobs’.

…[I]n Western societies, technical advancement has allowed many of us to extricate ourselves from physical, dangerous and demeaning forms of work, and to create careers that are fulfilling beyond renumeration: creatively, intellectually, socially… “job satisfaction”.

Historically, technological advances haven’t meant humans losing jobs. But it has meant we have taken on increasingly complex and interesting jobs. Perhaps the future will bring us further job satisfaction.

That’s not a bad place to be at all. A reminder that we should be grateful for the luxury we have in being able to pursue a good career in the first place, rather than slaving away to make ends meet.

See also: Why you shouldn’t follow your passion

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Language in web teams

Language in web teams

Content designer Sarah Richards shares an amusing story of a technique she has used to help people from different disciplines and backgrounds who have been talking at cross-purposes.

We are meant to be content and communication experts. But we often see people putting little effort into how they communicate internally, or even within their own teams.

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What product managers can learn from teachers about running great workshops

What product managers can learn from teachers about running great workshops

As it happens, I was recently talking to a colleague about the links between teaching and running workshops. I have come to appreciate the similarities this year. A couple of my colleagues used to be teachers, and working with them has made the parallels become clear.

This article contains some great tips on how to improve your workshops with techniques used by teachers.

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The most popular strategies companies use to save money also kill innovation

The most popular strategies companies use to save money also kill innovation

An interesting take on business process improvements such as Lean and Six Sigma. It suggests that while such process improvements improve reliability, they also make innovation plummet. Moreover, the effects are difficult to spot because they take so long to emerge.

Innovation requires different ways of doing things, and this is exactly what this system ends. But they don’t tell you that in the ISO9000 handbook, do they?

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When alumni interviewers screw up, things get weird

When alumni interviewers screw up, things get weird

The perils of using alumni to reach out to prospective students.

This article mainly pertains to examples found in the US. I am not sure how common this technique is in the UK.

There is a tricky balance to be struck between two of universities’ main sources of income. On the one hand there is the need to keep alumni engaged, which is thought to make them more likely to donate. But if it turns off students — particularly the right kind of students — the long-term risks could be greater.

Although highly selective colleges have become racially and socioeconomically diverse, alumni interviewers tend to be white and affluent. That can lead to awkward moments, said Ari Worthman, director of college counseling at Lakeside School, in Seattle. He recalled a low-income student who sat down with the graduate of a big-name college a couple of years ago. I’m so glad you’re looking at our school, the applicant was told, because we don’t normally interview students like you.

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Making good decisions as a product manager

Making good decisions as a product manager

While this article was originally aimed at product managers, the author concedes that it is relevant to any role.

Essentially, it argues that the key to good decision-making is not just understanding what the correct decision would be, but also how quickly you should make each decision. In other words, you need to know which decisions to agonise over, and which to make quickly.

You can be right 99% of the time, but if you’re wrong the 1% of times when it really matters, you’re not an effective decision maker. The takeaway is that when the stakes are high, you should work a lot harder at making the right decision.

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Your strategy should be a hypothesis you constantly adjust

Your strategy should be a hypothesis you constantly adjust

Why do strategies often “break down in the execution stage”? According to this study, it is often because big companies fail to learn from new information.

Staff on the ground will often fail to raise the alarm for fear of being blamed for failing to execute the strategy correctly. But often, the flaw was in the plan itself.

The Volkswagen diesel emissions case is one stark example:

VW’s culture — specifically, its executives’ lack of tolerance for pushback from people lower in the organization — seems to have played a major role in its diesel-emissions fiasco… VW leaders lost out on the opportunity to revisit and update the strategy. Meanwhile, engineers had developed software to fool the regulators — postponing the inevitable.

This article suggests taking a ‘strategy-as-learning’ perspective instead. It’s an approach that reminds me a lot of Lean UX methods.

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